Try this test.
Write down all the women composers you know of. No, don't run away. Given the nature of this column, stick to contemporary classical. Too hard? OK, include anyone, past or present, who has written religious, symphonic, chamber, vocal, choral, operatic, electro-acoustic works. To make it simple, film and TV scores are allowed too. Still zero? You're in distinguished company. The Guardian's 100 Most Inspiring Women this week, marking the 100th International Women's Day, featured not one.
In a confined space, however, the panel chose from an even tinier breed, naming a female conductor (Marin Alsop) as the classical exemplar. Before you start huffing, this is only marginally lower than the percentage the BBC Proms manages most years, ranging from one out of 43 conductors in 1989 to a miserable one out of 63 in 2010 (according to a report by Women in Music). Prejudice? Misogyny? Lack of habit or confidence or education? It's all these things; a different topic but not unrelated and impossible to ignore.
Classical music, however much it has changed for the better, remains a predominantly male haven. This is a numerical truth, not the prelude to a rant. Yet it seems baffling, if not shocking, that even now we still use the two words – "woman" and "composer" together as a collective noun, whereas it has long been out of date to refer to Barbara Hepworth or Tracey Emin as "women artists".
It's a century since Dame Ethel Smyth composed "The March of the Women" (1911), which she conducted through the bars of her cell in Holloway prison with a toothbrush. That remains the single most famous observation about a "lady composer". Merely mention Smyth's habit of dressing in tweeds, smoking cigars and falling in love with Virginia Woolf and you can see why she hasn't become a usable female-composer archetype. Many more know the tale of the toothbrush than have heard her music.
Today you can rapidly correct that omission. Comedian-conductor Sue Perkins will direct an all-women's orchestra in Smyth's anthem as the culmination of this weekend's Women of the World (WOW) festival at the Southbank Centre. All week, indeed, women's music has been in the spotlight. Last Tuesday, the PRS for Music Foundation, which currently has a female membership of 14 %, launched Women Make Music, "a unique funding opportunity for women music creators", including jazz and rock, with assistance worth up to £5,000, to "raise awareness of the gender gap and encourage new collaborations". The aim, according to Sally Taylor, chair of PRS for Music, is to "encourage more women to come forward", and "to promote role models for the future".
You may think this itself is a retrograde step. Let's go back to that test. Did you total the fingers of one hand? Not bad. With the BBC Proms a useful benchmark, you could qualify as a programme adviser. When the new season is announced next month the cry will go up, as it does each year as surely as the huntsman's tally-ho: "Where are the women composers?" And a spokesperson will rush in with some sticking-plaster statistic: one more than last season, two more than the year before. Better anyway than 2006: total nil. 2008 was a redemptive high, with six females out of 117 composers, or 5%.
If individuals themselves feel variously angry or ambivalent at being given a helping hand – the same arguments are rehearsed each year for the Orange prize despite the healthy number of women writers – most understand the need for consciousness-raising action.
"It's a delicate balance," agrees Janis Susskind, publishing director of Boosey & Hawkes. "None of the women composers I deal with like being singled out. It's more about vigilance, about noticing that there's no woman on a list. Why not? Are we satisfied? How could things be different?"
We can guess the myriad reasons, domestic, financial, educational, for their absence in the past. Nuns wrote music for their own use, famously the 12th-century Hildegard of Bingen. Later, many high-born women who sang or played wrote their own music, especially songs. But with the idea of a profession being lowly, so their talent remained uncelebrated. Some hid behind pseudonyms, like the stylish "Mrs Philharmonica". Most were forgotten until the explosion of gender studies began to vitalise the forgotten history of women. Aaron Cohen's International Encyclopedia of Women Composers (1987) managed to gather 6,000 entries. Even having written a book on Hildegard, interviewed many modern pioneers from Elizabeth Maconchy to Minna Keal to Judith Weir and followed the subject fairly closely, I still only recognise about two dozen names.
The idea that composition was a male preserve haunted even those who were demonstrably good at it, such as the formidably gifted Clara Schumann, who said it was not a job for women. She devoted herself to helping her composer husband. Today, at last, the landscape is changing. There's a groundswell of action: the Barbican's next Total Immersion (9 April) is devoted to Korea's Unsuk Chin, belatedly a big name. Women fill composition classes in conservatoires as never before. They are securing top composer-in-residence positions (see panel below), with a rash of talent, born in the 1980s, now finding voice.
We don't always help ourselves, and I speak collectively. Men are supposedly keen on women but I couldn't find one to accompany me to an "all-women composers" concert on Tuesday, or a female friend, come to that (pancake duty, either cooking or eating, was partly to blame). Fortunately others filled the church of St Andrew Holborn for Beneath These Alien Stars, a concert for International Women's Day. The large, enthusiastic – mixed – London Oriana Choir chose from across the centuries to show the variety on offer, impressively mastering 17 works new to them, including a UK premiere, Talk Show by Elena Kats-Chernin (b 1957). She has achieved her own celebrity by writing the current Lloyds TSB music.
The cruelly short-lived, blazingly talented Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) was faithfully represented in the lush, radiant "Hymne au Soleil". Sally Beamish's "God of the Moon" and works by Karin Rehnqvist and Cecilia McDowall, as well as Judith Weir (subject of a festival in Manchester last week) and Roxanna Panufnik (new associate composer with the London Mozart Players), stood out. This expressive choir, conducted by David Drummond, who devised the programme – yes, a man – gave Jocelyn Pook's "Mobile" as an encore. It wittily incorporates a "nana na na" representation of the Nokia theme as if to announce, whisper who dare, that women can be, in the best sense, musically sharp.
So now that the alibis and inequalities have gone, all doors are open. Still we cannot escape the unanswered, unfashionable and, certainly, uncomfortable question: for all the many good, even excellent women composers, why has there not yet been a great one? Where is the possessed, wild-eyed, crackpot female answer to Beethoven, who battled on throught deafness, loneliness, financial worry and disease to create timeless masterpieces?
The answer, and I run for cover even raising the matter, may lie in biology or even psychopathology. If one should arrive, what a cry of joy and relief will be heard. And in this brave new world, that toothbrush will grow into a lightweight, perfectly balanced baton and those prison bars will prove, after all, to have been the work of nurture not nature.
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